Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's so offensive about the Saudi 'reform offensive'?

The Jerusalem Post, in its infinite wisdom, published the other day an opinion column by Seth Frantzman who complained that reform in Saudi Arabia was “offensive.” Yes, reform is offensive to all good people.

No, wait. I got it wrong. Frantzman actually was whining about Saudi Arabia’s “reform offensive.” In other words, he says the Kingdom is waging a public relations battle in the West to demonstrate the advances Saudis have made in cultural and women’s rights reform.

Frantzman’s laments that dumb Westerners have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon to shout from the rooftops that the Kingdom is on its way reinventing itself. He pays particular attention to a Westerner he likely considers to be the dumbest of all, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She wrote recently about some progressive steps taken by Saudi Arabia. Frantzman also singles out American bloggers living in Saudi Arabia like Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu for joining the diabolical Saudi conspiracy of disseminating good news.

Frantzman and I share something in common. He identifies himself as a Ph.d researcher at Hebrew University and I am a Ph.d researcher in the United Kingdom. Well, I’m embarrassed for my Ph.d brothers and sisters worldwide. He gives us a bad name. Apparently this researcher lives in a bubble and hasn’t noticed the Western press is convinced the all the evil in the world is sourced from Saudi Arabia.

Okay. I’m exaggerating, but for every one Western journalist who refuses to engage in Saudi stereotyping there are 10 others who think that stereotyping is the “truth.” As a Ph.d researcher I’d expect some evidence that these Americans bloggers are dupes. The evidence I see is that Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu have intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia that most American journalists could never begin to understand. These bloggers possess Western values by virtue of their upbringing but live a Saudi life. Their life experiences give their written observations credibility that Frantzman lacks.

The reality is that Frantzman may write about the Saudi reform offensive, but his real message is that Saudi reform is offensive. Saudi reform is offensive to him because it’s a stark contrast to Israel’s relentless desire to keep the status quo and to deflect criticism of its actions.

Frantzman and the Jerusalem Post attack changes in Saudi society, particularly when embraced by Western journalists and bloggers, because Israel is rapidly losing the good will of the international community by failing to help find a solution to its conflict with Palestinians. Rather, Israel seems to delight in stoking the fires of rage among Palestinians and now the Obama administration by building housing settlements in East Jerusalem and sending hit squads around the globe to assassinate people the Israeli government deems annoying.

Frantzman is so offended by Saudi reform he cites dialogue in an American movie. In the film a police officer in the early 1960s American South says it’s “progress” that a black man is only whipped instead of hanged for stealing. I suppose he is talking about the snail’s pace of Saudi reform, but without considering for a moment that reform is indeed taking place. So when Maureen Dowd says some nice things about Saudi Arabia after spending a few days as a guest, people like Frantzman behave like an insecure younger sister living in the shadow of her prettier and brighter sibling. The insults fly.

Although the movie analogy is an example of lazy thinking, I must admit I am impatient with the pace of change in our society.

The Saudi judicial system’s recent decision to allow women lawyers to represent women clients in domestic and civil matters is a case in point. Severe restrictions will remain in place limiting a female lawyer’s access to judges and the right to practice criminal law. It’s almost as if the new rules were established to set up women lawyers for failure. Yet the Saudi government’s policy has always been to make incremental changes to reflect the sensibilities of Saudi society. These are the nuances that some Westerners get.

It’s also what the Jerusalem Post finds so offensive. It’s not that reform is slow, but that Saudi Arabia is willing to embark on the difficult, if not painful, path to reform while Israel isn’t.

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